Thursday, September 15, 2011

You’re not a newspaper, you’re an intelligence agency for the people: musing on the “Page One” documentary.

Media and culture columnist David Carr, left, meets with media desk editor Bruce Headlam, right in the
Magnolia Pictures documentary "Page One."

When the New York Times unveiled the porous pay wall, it showed the world an experiment to find a potential model to fund journalism: If you read more than 20 of our articles a month, we’re going to need some kind compensation.

When that news organization announced in July that its combined paid digital readership was near 400,000 after just four months (a figure that includes Kindle users), bloggers and media analyst began to speculate that NYT’s plan was working.

Some of these same people pointed out that those digital subscribers may only bring in $100 million, whereas the entire revenue for the Times is near $2 billion. For comparison, digital advertising yields $350 million.

Critics pointed to this fact and cried that the Times was changing dollars for pennies. Yet other analysts insisted that since digital subscribers can now be quantified and targeted, digital ad revenue would likely see an increase. (It’s accepted that a person who pays even $1 for a magazine or other print item is much more valuable to advertisers than a person who picks up a free publication.)

The documentarians making the movie “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times” had unlimited access to the Times during filming, and they used this to set up the tension behind that business move. As the movie slowly made its way across the United States, it meandered into our beloved local art theater just in time for a documentary film festival on Sept. 11.

There weren’t any documentaries about the attack that occurred on that day ten years ago. But “Page One” seemed as good a substitute as anything, given the important role the news media played before, during and after that event. While the film was stilted in favor of the Times, it did pause to muse on the failure of Judith Miller, a reporter who passed along unverified, propagandistic misinformation about the existence of WMDs in Iraq.

“Page One” managed to set up several plotlines over the course of that year: the redemption of a former crack-addict turned esteemed Times reporter (David Carr), the release of state secrets at the hands of WikiLeaks and what that meant for traditional news agencies, and the failure of the print news industry to adapt to the digital age.

Harsh critics will note that between those subjects, the film maintains all the focus of a candy-fueled adolescent with an attention deficit. The ride comes to an end before any of the plots have a chance to mature.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have moments of brilliance. One of the biggest moments in the film happens when David Carr, the Times media reporter and blogger, investigates the unraveling of the Tribune Company (which publishes the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) at the hands of real estate tycoon Sam Zell. Between the complaints of sexual harassment, financial mismanagement, cronyism, and a clip of Zell proclaiming to reporters that his newspapers should have a “porn section,” it becomes obvious that it’s not just technology that has decimated the Great American Newspaper.

Carr, by the way, steals the show. He’s a gruff-speaking, hard-nosed reporter who is neither an outsider nor immortalized as a bust in the vaunted halls of journalism. A man who has the ultimate BS detector installed, he lambasted “Vice Magazine” reporters for wasting footage on documenting a shit-covered African beach, while praising his own organization for reporting on genocide in the same region. And yet he still has the humility to drop comedic references about his paper’s hubris while reclined at the Media Desk.

“I can think of no greater compliment than that he reminds me of the reporters I held in awe when I first went to work for newspapers,” Roger Ebert wrote of Carr.

Emblematic of a classic reporter, Carr is suspicious of the encroachment of technology into journalism. He doesn’t see part-time, unpaid bloggers ever producing content on the level of professional, full-time reporters. “Oh, that’s a great reading experience,” Carr said, flipping through virtual pages on a colleague’s shiny, new Apple iPad. “You know what that reminds me of? A newspaper.”

When “Cablegate” hits the Times, the WikiLeaks organization releases some 260,000 confidential diplomatic cables to news agencies, and reporters question whether the Times needs WikiLeaks, or whether it’s the other way around.

The documentary draws links between the release of the Pentagon Papers, in which the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg sought the help of the Times to publicize the misdeeds of the Johnson Administration in the lead-up to the Vietnam war. A key difference this time, however, was that WikiLeaks had the power to publish all the cables independent of any news organization (and so they did). The inherent question was whether the digital age needed professional journalists at all.

The most important lesson about WikiLeaks goes unfilmed. It wasn’t so much that WikiLeaks needed the publicity from the mainstream media. The publicity helped, to be sure, but the cables were going to be released regardless. And it wasn’t as if Assange sought to elevate the prestige or credibility of his information by filtering it through the clout of major, respected newspapers. Assange felt that that his organization was “casting pearls before swine.”

No. The work between Julian Assange, the Times, the Guardian and other news agencies was a collaboration. Assange needed the manpower from news agencies to sift through those 260,000 cables and produce something of value.

“Back in New York we assembled a team of reporters, data experts and editors and quartered them in an out-of-the-way office,” wrote Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times at the time, in his article on the collaboration “Dealing With Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets.”

“Andrew Lehren, of our computer-assisted-reporting unit, did the first cut, searching terms on his own or those suggested by other reporters, compiling batches of relevant documents and summarizing the contents. We assigned reporters to specific areas in which they had expertise and gave them password access to rummage in the data. This became the routine we would follow with subsequent archives.”

In April 2011, Assange wrote in the New Statesman that WikiLeaks was meant to mirror the early twentieth century radical press, in that it should supply a space to expose the transgressions of the powerful. He claimed the Times acted with hostility in the Cablegate affair, and that it harbored a bias towards the establishment.

It shouldn’t be a stretch to consider the Times’ role in the WikiLeaks affair could be a glimpse into how a legacy newsroom could retool itself into an “intelligence agency for the people.”

Consider the following. An intelligence agency has agents who collect information, logistics specialists to move resources, and analysts to make sense of it all and explain it in reports. Newsrooms have reporters who collect information, allocate resources, analyze information and explain it in stories.

The real difference between an intelligence agency and a newsroom (besides rendition, assassination and a few other things) is how they manage data. Intelligence analysts incorporate statistical information, demographic information and input from psychoanalysts, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, geologists and essentially any resource a state can muster to understand the nature of the world. The end result is top secret.

The public should be provided these same services. The world is awash in data. What it lacks is understanding. The fourth estate is that it is positioned, more than any other entity, to package that information in the most persistent form to human memory: the narrative. And journalists at the forefront understand that more methods of communication only open as the technology improves: visualizations, interactive maps and charts, multimedia, and eventually, virtual environments.

There’s already been great progress to this end. The Guardian Datastore, Texas Tribune and the Bay Citizen recently won awards for investigating MP expenses, constructing a database of government salaries, and building an app to log bike accidents, respectively.

“Page One” ends with the paywall being erected, with the question about the fate of the Times still lingering. But just as easily it could have ended on an optimistic note, emphasizing this new, data-centric role as a chance of renewal for journalism.

Sources and Resources

Online edition of “The New Precision Journalist” by Philip Meyer.

“What journalists can learn from the scientists and the scientific method,” Matt Thompson on